The exposure of young New Zealanders to commercial messages to promote drinking has been a controversial issue since the government first opened up the broadcast media to brand advertising in 1992. There have been numerous (unsuccessful) private members’ bills proposed1,2 and numerous enquiries held under the auspices of the vested interests3 involved; these have recommended minor changes to the self-regulation system.
More recently marketing was under consideration in the Law Commission’s review of alcohol legislation. Their first report in 20094 did not propose major changes in alcohol marketing policy. In our meeting with the Commission it was apparent the processes developed by the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority - the industry body), with a focus on the content of advertising, had impressed the chair, Sir Geoffrey Palmer. However, by the time of the final report5 the Commission recommended a three stage reform which, if carried through, would result in some effective restrictions on exposure to alcohol marketing. What had happened?
Some of the change probably reflected increased understanding of the research evidence; the Commission were provided with a proof copy of the about to be published review of evidence on alcohol policy, Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity.6 The alcohol industry had made much of New Zealand’s focus on evidence-based policy to argue against change.7 However, the evidence reviewed in Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity,6 established both that exposure to alcohol advertising recruits young people to drink earlier and to drink larger quantities and that voluntary codes such as that operated by the ASA are ineffective.
A more likely influence on the Law Commission’s change of heart was the level of popular support for change. An unprecedented number of submissions were made to the Law Commission (almost 3000) and almost all of them commented on alcohol marketing and 86% of these supported banning or restricting alcohol advertising of all alcohol in all media.7The same pattern emerged in the submissions made to the Select Committee which subsequently considered the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act.
Yet, all that occurred was an extension to pre-existing regulation, focussed on the retail sector, which prohibits promotions promoting excessive drinking, having special appeal to minors, offering free alcohol or discounts of 25% or more or offering free goods or services with the purchase of alcohol. The promotion which is so powerful in building brand relationships and normalising drinking was left untouched.
Yet another committee, the Advertising Forum, was established by government in lieu of further policy change (and has recently heard submissions8 to investigate the issue). So why was the response so feeble?
Some clues for this can be found in the influence of the several powerful vested interests concerned with marketing. The CEO of the ASA was actually given a seat at the table of the most recent committee, the Advertising Forum8 despite the obvious conflict of interest.
Stepping back and looking at the harm alcohol does in our society, the evidence on marketing’s effect on young people’s consumption and the popular support evinced for change, the only reasons to maintain alcohol marketing in its current largely unrestricted state are to: first, protect the profits of the transnational corporate producers by allowing them to appeal to new cohorts of young people with marketingwhich recruits them as consumers as early as possible and encourages drinking of larger amounts and second, to protect the financial interests of the advertising and media industries.
It is hard to avoid drawing a conclusion that government’s failure to act was based on a decision to protect the interests of these large corporations at the expense of protecting the health and wellbeing of future generations of New Zealanders.
A restriction on alcohol marketing similar to that adopted more than 20 years ago in relation to tobacco (Smoke-free Environments Act, 1990) or specific to alcohol similar to that in France (LoiEvin, 1991) will not impact in any meaningful way on adult consumers’ knowledge of the availability of alcohol.
Significant restrictions on alcohol marketing will, however, likely effect the normalisation of alcohol. Normalisation, the acceptance of ubiquitous and perception of unproblematic use, makes it more difficult for health promotion and social marketing to affect consumption among heavy drinking social networks or for family and whanau to place limitations on access to alcohol by vulnerable young people.
A strong move to restrict alcohol marketing will send a message that the New Zealand community acknowledges alcohol, like tobacco, is no ordinary commodity. In turn this may increase the acceptability of other effective policies, such as price increases. This is a major reason why the alcohol industry is so focused on preventing any form of regulation of alcohol marketing.
Need for comprehensive restrictions
Alcohol marketing is broader than alcohol advertising and includes sponsorship (branding of events and teams/people), branded merchandise, price promotions, competitions and more. All aspects of marketing need to be subject to restriction. It is necessary for regulation to focus on preventing all exposure to alcohol marketing rather than attempting to affect the content of advertising. The extensive peer-reviewed research on tobacco9 and food10as well as alcohol promotion shows it is advertising per se that encourages young people into the market, not particular channels of advertising or types of message.
In order to protect young people from alcohol advertising we have to reduce their exposure to any form of promotion; not just adjust the message and channel mix.
Sponsorship, funding to allow for branding of positive events and experiences, is a major part of marketing in New Zealand and deserves urgent attention. The purpose of sponsorship is two-fold: first, to provide opportunities to promote alcohol products in contexts in which people are having positive and exciting experiences, and second, to promote the brand/corporation as a good corporate citizen, to legitimise their position as part of the ‘solution’ and thereby help ward off effective policy change. Neither of these are positive reasons from a public health perspective.
Recent research from New Zealand11 and Australia has found heavier drinking among sportspeople in teams sponsored by the alcohol industry and “receipt of alcohol industry sponsorship [was] associated with alcohol-related aggression/antisocial behaviours in university sportspeople” (p. 241).12
Alcohol industry sponsorship can easily be banned in all sporting, cultural, and community activities. Funding can be replaced by public funds, either from the consolidated fund, as was done for tobacco sponsorship, or by increasing the very small Health Promotion Association (HPA) levy on alcohol sales to allow for buy out. The HPA has the necessary experience and expertise to carry out such a process.
New developments in alcohol marketing increase the urgency for restrictions on alcohol marketing. Use of the social media has expanded exponentially since 2012 and provided extensive opportunities for the dissemination of alcohol marketing materials.
Social media case studies of a selection of alcohol brands by RAND Europe in 2012 showed that these all had considerable online media presence featuring both marketer-generated and user generated content. In the analysis carried out by RAND Europe13 Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were the three social media sites most used by young people. RAND analysed five alcohol brands, which all maintained a Facebook page, YouTube channel and Twitter account.
Facebook features included profile pages for comments by marketers and users, and additional content such as competitions, videos, recipes or applications such as games, inviting users to engage with marketer content. Similarly, marketer-generated YouTube sites contained a variety of videos related to the product, including adverts, and in one case comedy videos.
Twitter accounts contained tweets by the marketer and others, relating to the product, but also tweets on a variety of other subjects including comedy, fashion and recipes. New Zealand research has shown the use of these SNS (Social Networking Sites) provides young people with the opportunity to create and share ‘intoxigenic social identities’ and digital spaces which further contribute to the normalisation of youth consumption of alcohol.14
The response on sites such as Facebook has dramatically increased since 2012 and underage users can access alcohol material15 while this remains largely under the parental radar. In a new development transnational corporations such as Diageo and Heineken have commercial partnerships with Facebook which they describe as a ‘social university’. Heineken’s global head of digital media explains: "One of the criteria we have for agencies when they come up with a proposal is: 'why would I share this?' We aren't just developing campaigns for the people we send them to – we are developing them for the friends of those friends."16
In a letter to the FTC in 2011, the attorneys general (the leading law enforcement officers) of 24 US states and territories warned of ‘a “brave new world” of marketing that will expose millions of American youth to alcohol advertising messages on their cell phones and computers while at the same time taxing regulators’ capacity and understanding’. They urged the FTC not to rely solely on industry assurances of responsibility, but rather to gather the facts necessary for an independent assessment of what regulatory oversight is appropriate (cited in Jernigan & Rushman, 201415).
Drinking by young people
While the young are by no means the only New Zealanders exposed to health hazards due to drinking alcohol the confluence of their propensity to drink to intoxication, risk taking behaviour, increased risk of neurophysiological impacts and risk of developing dependence over time all suggest reasons for concern.
In New Zealand we have seen a marked increase in drinking by young people since the first introduction of brand advertising in the broadcast media in 1992. The reduction in the minimum purchase age in 2000 further stimulated increased consumption, particularly in the 16–17 year-old age group.17
We still have large amounts of alcohol being consumed by the young. In 2013 the Alcohol Policy in New Zealand (APINZ) survey carried out as part of the International Alcohol Control (IAC) study found among the groups aged 16–17 and 18–19 years more than one in three reported drinking at least eight drinks on a typical drinking occasion (unpublished data).
Such high levels of heavy quantity drinking (often described as binge drinking) are predictive of later drinking problems and injury18and a range of other adverse consequences.19Furthermore the earlier onset and larger amounts consumed contribute to lifetime consumption which is a causal factor in cancer along with other alcohol diseases.20
Lower socioeconomic populations are most at risk from heavy occasion drinking (and this, of course is relevant for Maori and Pasifika to the extent they remain disproportionately represented among heavier consumers). Alcohol therefore contributes to the health inequalities we experience in New Zealand and restrictions on alcohol marketing will contribute to reducing these inequalities by: first, removing the adverse influence of marketing, and second, allowing a better chance for health promotion and social marketing to have a positive impact
What should be done?
The ideal is a complete ban on alcohol marketing. This is feasible and a useful model is available in the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990. It has the advantage of thorough coverage of all marketing and sponsorship and includes internet marketing.21
A less restrictive model is the LoiEvin, the French legislation.22 The New Zealand Law Commission,5 following a lengthy evidence review and consultation process, made recommendations which reflect the LoiEvin and suggested a three stage process of implementation. The LoiEvin has withstood legal challenges, as has restrictive legislation in Sweden.
It must be noted the LoiEvin does not address internet marketing, an increasingly crucial issue and recent data suggest some increases in young people’s consumption in France.23Around the world, governments are trying to figure out how to regulate internet marketing.
Russia has banned all alcohol marketing originating from sites inside Russia. Finland has recently passed legislated restrictions on alcohol advertising which include restrictions on alcohol marketing in social media based on contents produced or shared by consumers themselves or games, raffles or contests.24These illustrate first attempts to deal with what is an increasingly important issue.
Whichever approach is taken it is essential this is done in the form of legislation and not left to the ineffective self-regulation by the industries.
The tobacco precedent
The parallel with restrictions on marketing of tobacco is an important one. While at first many people will think it is not a useful parallel because the substances are different and the end game is different (there is no expectation alcohol will not continue to be consumed and enjoyed in New Zealand) the parallel is nevertheless a real one; marketing is a driver of the harm associated with alcohol use just as it is with tobacco use.
Some 20 years ago it seemed a very big step to ban tobacco marketing, including sponsorship. The Smoke-free Environments Act has, however, contributed to the ongoing reduction in tobacco-related harm and the same is possible for alcohol.